Nursing studies

How teaching children about dementia helps you become a better communicator

Innovative resource helps nursing students improve children’s awareness of the condition

Innovative resource helps nursing students improve children’s awareness of the condition

  • Statistics indicate high likelihood children will come into contact with someone experiencing dementia
  • Resource won best educational initiative in Scotland’s dementia awards in 2016
  • Module helps nursing students understand the importance of health promotion and improve their communication skills
The students are asked ‘questions that are often challenging’
Nursing students teach children as young as nine about dementia, including how the brain works 

Nursing students at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) are helping to teach school children about dementia.

‘It’s helping the students to understand the importance of raising awareness and health promotion,’ says Winnie McGarry, a lecturer in adult nursing at the university’s Lanarkshire campus. ‘It’s a positive all round.’

The idea stemmed from research carried out by Ms McGarry and three colleagues – UWS adult nursing lecturers Caroline MacCallum, Wendy Wright and Fiona Everett – which looked at dementia through the eyes of a child. They set up a pilot study with three primary schools, a secondary school and nursing students.

Teaching children to be more caring, considerate and compassionate

Winnie McGarry was one of the UWS lecturers who developed the module
Winnie McGarry

‘The ultimate aim was to find out whether we could improve children’s knowledge and make a difference,’ explains Ms McGarry. ‘Given the projected statistics, the likelihood of these children coming into contact with someone living with dementia is high.

‘We found we could teach children as young as nine about the condition, helping them to be more caring, considerate and compassionate.’ 

The pilot was so successful that they created an acclaimed portable educational resource, called Dementia class in a bag, which won best educational initiative in Scotland’s dementia awards in 2016.

Part of the students’ fitness to practice module

Running for the last four years, it has become an established part of the programme for final-year adult and mental health nursing students across the university’s four sites. 

It will also feature in their new curriculum, which is being developed and begins next year.

As part of their fitness to practise module, nursing students go out to local schools in groups of six and teach children and young people aged 9-17 about dementia.

Sessions last two and a half hours and involve various workshops looking at different aspects of dementia, including how the brain works, assistive technologies and reminiscence, which incorporates the importance of music and scents.

An initiative that has reached more than 10,000 children

A simulated sensory experience demonstrates the difficulties experienced by people with dementia
A simulated sensory experience

There is also a simulated sensory experience, where children wear headsets transmitting white noise, goggles with impaired lenses, and gloves. 

They are then asked to do a variety of tasks, such as picking up playing cards or writing a shopping list, so they can experience firsthand the difficulties faced by people with dementia.

Since the initiative began, hundreds of nursing students have been involved, reaching more than 10,000 school children to date. 

‘It’s grown arms and legs and is now popular,’ says Ms McGarry. ‘It takes the students out of their comfort zone. They will be asked questions that are often challenging, and it helps to develop their teamwork and leadership skills.’

Children form an unpredictable audience

Before they visit a classroom, students are given pointers about how to control what happens. 

‘We warn them that children can be unpredictable and will often say things they may not anticipate,’ says Ms McGarry.

‘Initially, the students are apprehensive, but when they come back, they rave about how much they’ve loved it and they want to do it again. Sometimes the schools will ask them to return and some do in their own time.’

For the children, there is a discernible impact on their understanding. 

‘In their feedback about what they’ve learned, they say things like “don’t shout”, “speak slowly”, “hold their hand” and “tell them that you love them”. It brings a tear to your eye,’ says Ms McGarry.

Pupils were also asked to draw pictures and write poems about someone living with dementia, with some of their work exhibited at a Glasgow museum.

Improving children’s understanding of the brain

Karen Ross developed a model to improve children’s understanding of the brain
Karen Ross

Former adult nursing student Karen Ross, who qualified in 2015, used the ‘class in a bag’ and also developed a model to improve children’s understanding of the brain, leading to her being shortlisted for an ‘outstanding contribution from a student’ award by Scottish newspaper The Herald.

‘We were doing a workshop on the brain’s anatomy and I adapted a slide, as children like something interactive that they can touch,’ she explains. 

Using a laminated card showing areas of the brain and various colours of Play-Doh, the children were able to see the effects of dementia, as different areas were removed.

‘The children loved it because it gave them the opportunity to make something and learn through it,’ she says. 

Helping to improve communication skills

Guiding individual and group decision-making, teamworking and improved communication skills were among the benefits of taking part. 

‘It helped me understand that it’s not just about verbal communication – non-verbal is also important,’ says Ms Ross, who is now a health visitor based in Glasgow.

The students are warned that children can be unpredictable
Workshops for the children include learning how scent can trigger reminiscence
for people living with dementia

‘Health education and promotion were also vital. I found that I loved that side of it, being able to influence people’s behaviours – it’s one of the reasons why I moved into my current role.’

The workshops also helped enhance students’ abilities to adapt, she believes. 

‘Working with children means things are never going to go to the plan you’ve made,’ she says. 

‘You never know what questions they will come out with. It was a great opportunity.’


Lynne Peace is a health journalist

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